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Permutation City. 8

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Maria gave in and learned how to use a mind"s eye control panel to switch between her Elysian body and her Autoverse telepresence robot. She stretched the robot"s arms and looked around the glistening flight deck of the Ambassador. She was lying in an acceleration couch, alongside the other three members of the crew. According to the flight plan, the robot was almost weightless now-but she"d chosen to filter out the effects of abnormal gravity, high or low. The robot knew how to move itself, in response to her wishes, under any conditions; inflicting herself with space sickness for the sake of "realism" would be absurd. She was not in the Autoverse, after all-she had not become this robot. Her entire model-of-a-human-body was still being run back in Elysium; the robot was connected to that model in a manner not much different from the nerve-induction link between a flesh-and-blood visitor to a VR environment, and his or her software puppet.

She flicked a mental switch and returned to the cloned apartment. Durham, Repetto and Zemansky sat in their armchairs, staring blankly ahead; little more than place markers, really. She went back to the Ambassador, but opened a small window in a corner of her visual field, showing the apartment through her Elysian eyes. If she was merely running a puppet in the Autoverse, she wanted to be clear about where her "true" body was supposed to be located. Knowing that there was an unobserved and insensate shop-window dummy occupying a chair on her behalf was not quite enough.

From the acceleration couch, she watched a-solid-display screen, high on the far wall of the flight deck, which showed their anticipated trajectory, swooping down on a shallow helical path toward Planet Lambert. They"d injected the ship through the border at the nearest possible point-one hundred and fifty thousand kilometers above the orbital plane-with a convenient preexisting velocity; it would take very little fuel to reach their destination, and descend.

She said, "Does anyone know if they ever bothered to rehearse a real landing in this thing?" Her vocal tract, wherever it was, felt perfectly normal as she spoke-but the timbre of her voice sounded odd through the robot"s ears. The tricks being played on her model-of-a-brain to edit out the growing radio time lag between her intentions and the robot"s actions didn"t bear thinking about.

Durham said, "Everything was rehearsed. They recreated the whole prebiotic planetary system for the test flights. The only difference between then and now was that they could materialize the ship straight into the vacuum, wherever they liked-and control the puppet crew directly."

Violating Autoverse laws all over the place. It was unnerving to hear it spelled out: the lifeless Autoverse, in all its subatomic detail, had been a mere simulation; the presence of the Lambertians had made all the difference.

A second display screen showed the planet itself, an image from a camera outside the hull. The view was no different from that which the spy software had shown her a thousand times; although the camera and the robot"s eyes were subject to pure Autoverse physics, once the image was piped into her non-Autoverse brain, the usual false-color conventions were employed. Maria watched the blue-and-white disk growing nearer, with a tightening in her chest. Free falling with the illusion of weight. Descending and staying still.

She said, "Why show ourselves to the Lambertians, immediately? Why not send Mouthpiece ahead to prepare the ground-to make sure that they"re ready to face us? There are no animals down there larger than a wasp-and none at all with internal skeletons, walking on their hind legs. Humanoid robots one hundred and eighty centimeters tall will look like something out of their nightmares."

Repetto replied, "Novel stimuli aren"t disabling for the Lambertians. They"re not going to go into shock. But we"ll certainly grab their attention."

Durham added, "We"ve come to reveal ourselves as the creators of their universe. There"s not much point being shy about it."

They hit the upper layers of the atmosphere over the night side. Land and ocean alike were in almost perfect darkness: no moonlight, no starlight, no artificial illumination. The ship began to vibrate; instrument panels on the flight deck hummed, and the face of one display screen audibly cracked. Then radio contact was disrupted by the cone of ionized gas around the hull, and they had no choice but to return to the apartment, to sit out the worst of it. Maria stared at the golden towers of the City, weighing the power of their majestic, self-declared invulnerability against the unassailable logic of the buffeting she"d just witnessed.

They returned for the last seconds of the descent, after the parachutes had already been deployed. The impact itself seemed relatively smooth-or maybe that was just her gravity filter coddling her. They left their acceleration couches and waited for the hull to cool: cameras showed the grass around them blackened, but true to predictions the fire had died out almost at once.

Repetto unpacked Mouthpiece from a storage locker, opening the canister full of robot insects and tipping them into the air. Maria flinched as the swarm flew around aimlessly for several seconds, before assembling into a tight formation in one corner of the deck.

Durham opened the airlock doors, outer first, then inner. The robots didn"t need pneuma of any kind, but the Ambassador"s designers must have toyed with the possibility of mapping human biochemistry into the Autoverse-actually creating "aliens" who could meet the Lambertians as equals-instead of playing with elaborate masks.

They stepped out onto the scorched ground. It was early morning; Maria blinked at the sunlight, the clear white sky. the warmth on her robot skin came through loud and clear. The blue-green meadow stretched ahead as far as she could see; she walked away from the ship-a squat ceramic truncated cone, its white heat shield smoke-darkened in untidy streaks-and the highlands to the south came into view behind it. Lush vegetation crowded the slopes, but the peaks were bare, rust-red.

A chorus of faint chirps and hums filled the air. She glanced at Mouthpiece, but it was hovering, almost silently, near Repetto; these sounds were coming from every direction. She recognized some of the calls-she"d listened to a few of the nonsentient species, in a quick tour of the evolutionary history leading up to Lambertian communication-and there was nothing particularly exotic about any of them; she might have been hearing cicadas, bees, wasps, mosquitoes. When a faint breeze blew from the east, though, carrying something which the robot"s olfactory apparatus mapped to the scent of salt water, Maria was suddenly so overwhelmed by the modest cluster of sensations that she thought her legs might give way beneath her. But it didn"t happen; she made no deliberate attempt to swoon, so the robot just stood like a statue.

Durham approached her. "You"ve never been on Lambert before, have you?"

She frowned. "How could I?"

"Passively. Most Autoverse scholars have done it." Maria remembered Zemansky"s offer of a VR representation, when she first met the Contact Group. Durham bent down and picked a handful of grass, then scattered the blades. "But we could never do that before."

"Hallelujah, the Gods have landed. What are you going to do if the Lambertians ask for a miracle? Pluck a few leaves as a demonstration of your omnipotence?"

He shrugged. "We can always show them the ship."

"They"re not stupid. The ship proves nothing. Why should they believe that we"re running the Autoverse, when we can"t even break its laws?"

"Cosmology. The primordial cloud. The convenient amounts of each element." She couldn"t help looking skeptical. He said, "Whose side are you on? You designed the primordial cloud! You sketched the original topography! You made the ancestor of the whole Lambertian biosphere! All I want to do is tell them that. It"s the truth, and they have to face it."

Maria looked about, at a loss for words. It seemed clearer than ever that this world was not her creation; it existed on its own terms.

She said, "Isn"t that like saying... that your flesh-and-blood original was nothing but a lunatic with some strange delusions? And that any other, better explanation he invented for his life had to be wrong?"

Durham was silent for a while. Then he said, "Elysium is at stake. What do you want us to do? Map ourselves into Autoverse biochemistry and come here to live?"

"I"ve seen worse places."

"The sun"s going to freeze in another billion years. I promised these people immortality."

Repetto called out to them, "Are you ready? I"ve spotted the team; they"re not far off. About three kilometers west." Maria was baffled for a moment, until she recalled that he still had access to all of the spy software. They were, still, outside the Autoverse looking in.

Durham yelled back, "Ten seconds." He turned to Maria. "Do you want to be part of this, or not? It has to be done the way I"ve planned it-and you can either go along with that, or go back."

She was about to reply angrily that he had no right to start making ultimatums, when she noticed the tiny window with its view of the apartment, hovering in the corner of her eye.

Elysium was at stake. Hundreds of thousands of people. The Lambertians would survive the shock of learning their "true" cosmology. Elysium might or might not survive the invention of an alternative.

She said, "You"re right; it has to be done. So let"s go spread the word." + + +

The team was hovering in a loose formation over the meadow. Maria had had visions of being attacked, but the Lambertians didn"t seem to notice their presence at all. They stopped about twenty meters from the swarm, while Mouthpiece went forward.

Repetto said, "This is the dance to signify that we have a message to convey."

Mouthpiece came to a halt in a tight vertical plane, and the individual robots began to weave around each other in interlocking figure eights. The Lambertians responded immediately, aligning themselves into a similar plane. Maria glanced at Repetto; he was beaming like a ten-year-old whose home-made shortwave radio had just started to emit promising crackling noises.

She whispered, "It looks like they"re ignoring us completely... but do they think they"re talking to real Lambertians-or have they noticed the differences?"

"I can"t tell. But as a group, they"re reacting normally, so far."

Zemansky said, "If a robot greeted you in your own language, wouldn"t you reply?"

Repetto nodded. "And the instinct goes far deeper, with the Lambertians. I don"t think they"d... discriminate. If they"ve noticed the differences, they"ll want to understand them, eventually-but the first priority will still be to receive the message. And to judge it."

Mouthpiece began to drift into a more complex formation. Maria could make little sense of it-but she could see the Lambertians tentatively begin to mimic the change. This was it: Durham and Repetto"s cosmological package deal. An explanation for the primordial cloud, and for the deep rules underlying Autoverse chemistry: a cellular automaton, created with the cloud in place, five billion years ago. The two billion years of planetary formation which strictly hadn"t happened seemed like a forgivable white lie, for the moment; messy details like that could be mentioned later, if the basic idea was accepted.

Durham said, "Bad messages usually can"t be conveyed very far. Maybe the fact that Mouthpiece clearly isn"t a team for a nearby community will add credence to the theory."

Nobody replied. Zemansky smiled sunnily. Maria watched the dancing swarms, hypnotized. The Lambertians seemed to be imitating Mouthpiece almost perfectly, now-but that only proved that they"d "read" the message. It didn"t yet mean that they believed it.

Maria turned away, and saw black dots against the sky. Persistence of vision was back in Elysium, in her model-of-a-brain. She remembered her dissatisfaction, clutching Autoverse molecules with her real-world hands and gloves. Had she come any closer to knowing the Autoverse as it really was?

Repetto said, "They"re asking a question. They"re asking for... clarification." Maria turned back. The Lambertians had broken step with Mouthpiece, and the swarm had rearranged itself into something like an undulated black flying carpet. "They want "the rest of the message"-the rest of the theory. They want a description of the universe within which the cellular automaton was created."

Durham nodded. He looked dazed, but happy. "Answer them. Give them the TVC rules."

Repetto was surprised. "Are you sure? That wasn"t the plan-"

"What are we going to do? Tell them it"s none of their business?"

"I"ll translate the rules. Give me five seconds."

Mouthpiece began a new dance. The waving carpet dispersed, then began to fall into step.

Durham turned to Maria. "This is better than we"d dared to hope. This way, they reinforce us. They won"t just stop challenging our version; they"ll help to affirm it."

Zemansky said, "They haven"t accepted it yet. All they"ve said is that the first part of what we"ve told them makes no sense alone. They might ask about real-world physics, next."

Durham closed his eyes, smiling. He said quietly, "Let them ask. We"ll explain everything-right back to the Big Bang, if we have to."

Repetto said, puzzled, "I don"t think it"s holding."

Durham glanced at the swarm. "Give them a chance. They"ve barely tried it out."

"You"re right. But they"re already sending back a... rebuttal."

The swarm"s new pattern was strong and simple: a sphere, rippling with waves like circles of latitude, running from pole to pole. Repetto said, "The software can"t interpret their response. I"m going to ask it to reassess all the old data; there may be a few cases where this dance has been observed before-but too few to be treated as statistically significant."

Maria said, "Maybe we"ve made some kind of grammatical error. Screwed up the syntax, so they"re laughing in our face-without bothering to think about the message itself."

Repetto said, "Not exactly." He frowned, like a man trying to visualize something tricky. Mouthpiece began to echo the spherical pattern. Maria felt a chill in her Elysian bowels.

Durham said sharply, "What are you doing?"

"Just being polite. Just acknowledging their message."

"Which is?"

"You may not want to hear it."

"I can find out for myself, if I have to." He took a step toward Repetto, more a gesture of impatience than a threat; a cloud of tiny blue gnat-like creatures flew up from the grass, chirping loudly.

Repetto glanced at Zemansky; something electric passed between them. Maria was confused-they were, unmistakably, lovers; she"d never noticed before. But perhaps the signals had passed through other channels, before, hidden from her. Only now-

Repetto said, "Their response is that the TVC rules are false-because the system those rules describe would endure forever. They"re rejecting everything we"ve told them, because it leads to what they think is an absurdity."

Durham scowled. "You"re talking absurdities. They"ve had transfinite mathematics for thousands of years."

"As a formality, a tool-an intermediate step in certain calculations. None of their models lead to infinite results. Most teams would never go so far as to try to communicate a model which did; that"s why this response is one we"ve rarely seen before."

Durham was silent for a while, then he said firmly, "We need time to decide how to handle this. We"ll go back, study the history of the infinite in Lambertian culture, find a way around the problem, then return."

Maria was distracted by something bright pulsing at the edge of her vision. She turned her head-but whatever it was seemed to fly around her as fast as she tracked it. Then she realized it was the window on Elysium; she"d all but banished it from her attention, filling it in like a blind spot. She tried to focus on it, but had difficulty making sense of the image. She centered and enlarged it.

The golden towers of Permutation City were flowing past the apartment window. She cried out in astonishment, and put her hands up, trying to gesture to the others. The buildings weren"t simply moving away; they were softening, melting, deforming. She fell to her knees, torn between a desire to return to her true body, to protect it-and dread at what might happen if she did. She dug one hand into the Lambertian soil; it felt real, solid, trustworthy.

Durham grabbed her shoulder. "We"re going back. Stay calm. It"s only a view-we"re not part of the City."

She nodded and steeled herself, fighting every visceral instinct about the source of the danger, and the direction in which she should flee. The cloned apartment looked as solid as ever... and in any case, its demise could not, in itself, harm her. The body she had to defend was invisible: the model running at the far end of Durham"s territory. She would be no safer pretending to be on Planet Lambert than she would pretending to be in the cloned apartment.

She returned.

The four of them stood by the window, speechless, as the City rapidly and silently... imploded. Buildings rushed by, abandoning their edges and details, converging on a central point. The outskirts followed, the fields and parks flowing in toward the golden sphere which was all that remained of the thousand towers. Rainforest passed in a viridian blur. Then the scene turned to blackness as the foothills crowded in, burying their viewpoint in a wall of rock.

Maria turned to Durham. "The people who were in there... ?"

"They"ll all have left. Shocked but unharmed. Nobody was in there-in the software-any more than we were." He was shaken, but he seemed convinced.

"And what about the founders with adjoining territory?"

"I"ll warn them. Everyone can come here, everyone can shift. We"ll all be safe, here. The TVC grid is constantly growing; we can keep moving away, while we plan the next step."

Zemansky said firmly, "The TVC grid is decaying. The only way to be safe is to start again. Pack everything into a new Garden-of-Eden configuration, and launch Elysium again."

Repetto said, "If that"s possible. If the infinite is still possible." Born into a universe without limits, without death, he seemed transfixed by the Lambertians" verdict.

A red glow appeared in the distance; it looked like a giant sphere of luminous rubble. As Maria watched, it brightened, then broke apart into a pattern of lights, linked by fine silver threads. A neon labyrinth. A fairground at night, from the air. The colors were wrong, but the shape was unmistakable: it was a software map of the City. The only thing missing was the highway, the data link to the hub.

Before Maria could say a word, the pattern continued to rearrange itself. Dazzling pinpricks of light appeared within a seemingly random subset of the processes, then moved together, clustering into a tightly linked core. Around them, a dimmer shell formed by the remaining software settled into a symmetrical configuration. The system looked closed, self-contained.

They watched it recede, in silence.
<dd><br><dd>31

Peer turned and looked behind him. Kate had stopped dead in the middle of the walkway. All the energy seemed to drain out of her; she put her face in her hands, then sank to her knees.

She said flatly, "They"ve gone, haven"t they? They must have discovered us... and now this is their punishment. They"ve left the City running... but they"ve deserted it."

"We don"t know that."

She shook her head impatiently. "They will have made another version-purged of contamination-for their own use. And we"ll never see them again." A trio of smartly dressed puppets approached, and walked straight through her, smiling and talking among themselves.

Peer walked over to her and sat cross-legged on the floor beside her. He"d already sent software probes hunting for any trace of the Elysians, without success-but Kate had insisted on scouring a reconstruction of the City, on foot, as if their own eyes might magically reveal some sign of habitation that the software had missed.

He said gently, "There are a thousand other explanations. Someone might have... I don"t know... created a new environment so astonishing that they"ve all gone off to explore it. Fashions sweep Elysium like plagues-but this is their meeting place, their center of government, their one piece of solid ground. They"ll be back."

Kate uncovered her face and gave him a pitying look. "What kind of fashion would tempt every Elysian out of the City, in a matter of seconds? And where did they hear about this great work of art which they had to rush off and experience? I monitor all the public networks; there was nothing special leading up to the exodus. But if they"d discovered us-if they knew we were listening in-then they wouldn"t have used the public channels to announce the fact, would they?"

Peer couldn"t see why not; if the Elysians had found them, they"d also know that he and Kate were powerless to influence the City-let alone its inhabitants-in any way. There was no reason to arrange a secret evacuation. He found it hard enough to believe that anyone would want to punish two harmless stowaways-but it was harder still to accept that they"d been "exiled" without being dragged through an elaborate ritual of justice-or at the very least, publicly lambasted for their crime, before being formally sentenced. The Elysians never missed the opportunity for a bit of theater; swift, silent retribution just didn"t ring true.

He said, "If the data link to the hub was broken, unintentionally-"

Kate was scornful. "It would have been fixed by now."

"Perhaps. That depends on the nature of the problem." He hesitated. "Those four weeks I was missing... we still don"t know if I was cut off from you by a fault in the software at our level-or whether the problem was somewhere deeper. If there are faults appearing in the City itself, one of them might have severed the links to the rest of Elysium. And it might take some time for the problem to be pinned down; anything that"s taken seven thousand years to reveal itself could turn out to be elusive."

Kate was silent for a while, then she said, "There"s an easy way to find out if you"re right. Increase our slowdown-keep increasing it-and see what happens. Program our exoselves to break in and switch us back to the normal rate if there"s any sign of the Elysians... but if that doesn"t happen, keep ploughing ahead into the future, until we"re both convinced that we"ve waited long enough."

Peer was surprised; he liked the idea-but he"d imagined that Kate would have preferred to prolong the uncertainty. He wasn"t sure if it was a good sign or not. Did it mean she wanted to make a clean break from the Elysians? To banish any lingering hope of their return, as rapidly as possible? Or was it proof of just how desperately she wanted them back?

He said, "Are you sure you want to do that?"

"I"m sure. Will you help me program it? You"re the expert at this kind of thing."

"Here and now?"

"Why not? The whole point is to save ourselves from waiting."

Peer created a control panel in the air in front of them, and together they set up the simple time machine.

Kate hit the button.

Slowdown one hundred. The puppets using the walkway accelerated into invisible streaks. Slowdown ten thousand. Night and day chugged by, then flashed, then flickered-slowdown one million-then merged. Peer glanced up to watch the arc of the sun"s path slide up and down the sky with the City"s mock seasons, ever faster, until it smeared into a dull glowing band. Slowdown one billion. The view was perfectly static, now. There were no long-term fake astronomical cycles programmed into the virtual sky. No buildings rose, or crumbled. The empty, invulnerable City had nothing to do but repeat itself: to exist, and exist, and exist. Slowdown one trillion.

Peer turned to Kate. She sat in an attentive pose, head up, eyes averted, as if she was listening for something. The voice of an Elysian hyperintelligence, the endpoint of a billion years of self-directed mutation, reaching out to encompass the whole TVC grid? Discovering their fate? Judging them, forgiving them, and setting them free?

Peer said, "I think you"ve won the bet. They"re not coming back." He glanced at the control panel, and felt a stab of vertigo; more than a hundred trillion years of Standard Time had elapsed. But if the Elysians had cut all ties with them, Standard Time was meaningless. Peer reached out to halt their acceleration, but Kate grabbed him by the wrist.

She said quietly, "Why bother? Let it climb forever. It"s only a number, now."

"Yes." He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.

"One instruction per century. One instruction per millennium. And it makes no difference. You"ve finally got your way."

He cradled Kate in his arms, while Elysian aeons slipped away. He stroked her hair, and watched the control panel carefully. Only one number was rising; everything but the strange fiction of Elapsed Standard Time stayed exactly the same.

No longer tied to the growth of the Elysians, the City remained unchanged, at every level. And that meant, in turn, that the infrastructure which Carter had woven into the software for them had also ceased to expand. The simulated "computer" which ran them, composed of the City"s scattered redundancies, was now a finite "machine," with a finite number of possible states.

They were mortal again.

It was a strange feeling. Peer looked around the empty walkway, looked down at the woman in his arms, feeling like he"d woken from a long dream-but when he searched himself for some hint of a waking life to frame it, there was nothing. David Hawthorne was a dead stranger. The Copy who"d toured the Slow Clubs with Kate was as distant as the carpenter, the mathematician, the librettist.

Who am I?

Without disturbing Kate, he created a private screen covered with hundreds of identical anatomical drawings of the brain; his menu of mental parameters. He hit the icon named CLARITY.

He"d generated a thousand arbitrary reasons to live. He"d pushed his philosophy almost as far as it would go. But there was one last step to take.

He said, "We"ll leave this place. Launch a universe of our own. It"s what we should have done long ago."

Kate made a sound of distress. "How will I live, without the Elysians? I can"t survive the way you do: rewiring myself, imposing happiness. I can"t do it."

"You won"t have to."

"It"s been seven thousand years. I want to live among people again."

"Then you"ll live among people."

She looked at him hopefully. "We"ll create them? Run the ontogenesis software? Adam-and-Eve a new world of our own?"

Peer said, "No. I"ll become them. A thousand, a million. Whatever you want. I"ll become the Solipsist Nation."

Kate pulled away from him. "Become? What does that mean? You don"t have to become a nation. You can build it with me-then sit back and watch it grow."

Peer shook his head. "What have I become, already? An endless series of people-all happy for their own private reasons. Linked together by the faintest thread of memory. Why keep them spread out in time? Why go on pretending that there"s one "real" person, enduring through all those arbitrary changes?"

"You remember yourself. You believe you"re one person. Why call it a pretence? It"s the truth."

"But I don"t believe it, anymore. Each person I create is stamped with the illusion of still being this imaginary thing called "me"-but that"s no real part of their identity. It"s a distraction, a source of confusion. There"s no reason to keep on doing it-or to make these separate people follow each other in time. Let them all live together, meet each other, keep you company."

Kate gripped him by the shoulders and looked him in the eye. "You can"t become the Solipsist Nation. That"s nonsense. It"s rhetoric from an old play. All it would mean is... dying. The people the software creates when you"re gone won"t be you in any way."

"They"ll be happy, won"t they? From time to time? For their own strange reasons?"

"Yes. But-"

"That"s all I am, now. That"s all that defines me. So when they"re happy, they"ll be me."
<dd><br><dd>32

"Seventeen down, one to go."

Durham had rendered himself calm and efficient, to deal with the evacuation. Maria, still unmodified, watched-sick with relief-as he finally packed Irene Shaw, her seven hundred million offspring, and their four planets" worth of environments, into the bulging Garden-of-Eden-in-progress. A compressed snapshot of the entire civilization flowed down the data paths Durham had created to bypass the suspect hub-following a dozen independent routes, verified and reverified at every step-until it crossed the barrier into the region where the new Elysium was being forged.

So far, there"d been no sign that the corruption of the grid was spreading further-but the last Town Meeting had given Durham just six hours of Standard Time to assemble and launch the new seed. Maria was astonished that they"d appointed him to do the job at all, given that it was his clandestine visit to Planet Lambert which had catalyzed the whole disaster (and they"d left-nonconscious-watchdog software running, to monitor his actions, and take over the task if he failed)... but he was still the man who"d built and launched Elysium, and apparently they trusted him above anyone else to rescue them from their disintegrating universe, just as he"d rescued the founders from their legendary deteriorating Earth.

Two of the three "hermits" among the founders-Irene Shaw and Pedro Callas-had responded to the emergency signals sent into their pyramids from the hub. Despite their millennia of silence, they hadn"t sealed their worlds off completely from information from the rest of Elysium.

Thomas Riemann, apparently, had.

Maria checked the clock on the interface window; they had fourteen minutes left.

Durham had set a program running, hours before, to try to break into Riemann"s pyramid. He"d succeeded in forging new links with the processors, but without Riemann"s personal code, any instructions piped in would be ignored-and a time-lock triggered by each incorrect attempt made scanning through all ninety-nine-digit combinations impractical. So Durham had instructed a metaprogrammer to build a TVC "machine" to isolate and dissect one of Riemann"s processors, to scrutinize the contents of its memory, and to deduce the code from the heavily encrypted tests within.

As the program zeroed in on the final result, Maria said sharply, "You could have done that for my pyramid, couldn"t you? And let me sleep?"

Durham shook his head, without looking at her. "Done it from where? I had no access to the border. This is only possible because the other founders have granted me carte blanche."

"I think you could have burrowed through somehow, if you"d set your mind to it."

He was silent for a while, then he conceded, "Perhaps I could have. I did want you to see Planet Lambert. I honestly believed that I had no right to let you sleep through contact."

She hunted for a suitably bitter reply-then gave up and said wearily, "You had no right to wake me-but I"m glad I saw the Lambertians."

The code-breaking program said, "In."

There was no time left for decorum, for explaining the crisis and justifying the evacuation. Durham issued a sequence of commands, to freeze all the software running in the pyramid, analyze it, extract all the essential data, and bundle it into the new Garden-of-Eden. Riemann and his children need never know the difference.

The software had other ideas. It acknowledged the access code, but refused to halt.

Maria turned aside and retched drily. How many people were in there? Thousands? Millions? There was no way of knowing. What would happen if the changes in the grid engulfed them? Would the worlds they inhabited implode and vanish, like the inanimate City?

When she could bring herself to look again, Durham had calmly changed tack. He said, "I"m trying to break the lock on communication. See if I can get in on any level, and at least talk to someone. Maybe from the inside they"ll have more control; we can"t halt their software and download it en masse, but maybe they can do that themselves."

"You have eleven minutes."

"I know." He hesitated. "If I have to, I can stick around and launch these people separately. I don"t imagine they care whether or not they"re in the same universe as the rest of the Elysians."

"Stick around? You mean clone yourself, and launch one version with the rest of us-?"

"No. Zemansky"s organized a hundred people to verify the launch from within. I don"t have to be there."

Maria was horrified. "But-why leave yourself out? Why risk it?"

He turned to her and said placidly, "I"m not splitting myself, not again. I had enough of that on twenty-four Earths. I want one life, one history. One explanation. Even if it has to come to an end."

The program he"d been running beeped triumphantly and flashed up a message. "There"s a data port for granting physical interaction with one environment, and it seems to be intact."

Maria said, "Send in a few thousand robots, sweep the place for signs of life."

Durham was already trying it. He frowned. "No luck. But I wonder if..."

He created a doorway a few meters to his right; it seemed to lead into a lavishly decorated corridor.

Maria said queasily, "You have seven minutes. The port"s not working: if a robot can"t materialize..."

Durham stood and walked through the doorway, then broke into a run. Maria stared after him. But there was no special danger "in there"-no extra risk. The software running their models was equally safe, wherever they pretended their bodies to be.

She caught up with Durham just as he reached an ornate curved staircase; they were upstairs in what seemed to be a large two-story house. He clapped her on the shoulder. "Thank you. Try downstairs, I"ll keep going up here."

Maria wished she"d disabled all her human metabolic constraints-but she was too agitated now to try to work out how to make the changes, too awash with adrenaline to do anything but run down corridors bellowing, "Is there anyone home?"

At the end of one passage, she burst through a door and found herself out in the garden.

She looked about in despair. The grounds were enormous-and apparently deserted. She stood catching her breath, listening for signs of life. She could hear birdsong in the distance, nothing else.

Then she spotted a white shape in the grass, near a flowerbed full of tulips.

She yelled, "Down here!" and hurried toward it.

It was a young man, stark naked, stretched out on the lawn with his head cradled in his hands. She heard breaking glass behind her, and then a heavy thud on the ground; she turned to see Durham pick himself up and limp toward her.

She knelt by the stranger and tried to wake him, slapping his cheeks. Durham arrived, ashen, clearly shorn of his artificial tranquility. He said, "I think I"ve sprained an ankle. I could have broken my neck. Don"t take any risks-something strange is going on with our physiology; I can"t override the old-world defaults."

Maria seized the man by the shoulders and shook him hard, to no effect. "This is hopeless!"

Durham pulled her away. "I"ll wake him. You go back."

Maria tried to summon up a mind"s-eye control panel to spirit her away. Nothing happened. "I can"t connect with my exoself. I can"t get through."

"Use the doorway, then. Run!"

She hesitated-but she had no intention of following Durham into martyrdom. She turned and sprinted back into the house. She took the stairs two at a time, trying to keep her mind blank, then raced down the corridor. The doorway into the evacuation control room was still there-or at least, still visible. As she ran toward it, she could see herself colliding with an invisible barrier-but when she reached the frame, she passed straight through.

The clock on the interface window showed twenty seconds to launch.

When she"d insisted on hanging around, Durham had made her set up a program which would pack her into the new Garden-of-Eden in an instant; the icon for it-a three-dimensional Alice stepping into a flat storybook illustration-was clearly on display in a corner of the window.

She reached for it, then glanced toward the doorway into Riemann"s world.

The corridor was moving, slowly retreating. Slipping away, like the buildings of the City.

She cried out, "Durham! You idiot! It"s going to implode!" Her hand shook; her fingers brushed the Alice icon, lightly, without the force needed to signal consent.

Five seconds to launch.

She could clone herself. Send one version off with the rest of Elysium, send one version in to warn him.

But she didn"t know how. There wasn"t time to learn how.

Two seconds. One.

She bunched her fist beside the icon, and wailed. The map of the giant cube flickered blue-white: the new lattice had begun to grow, the outermost processors were reproducing. It was still part of Elysium-a new grid being simulated by the processors of the old one-but she knew the watchdog software wouldn"t give her a second chance. It wouldn"t let her halt the launch and start again.

She looked back through the doorway. The corridor was still sliding smoothly away, a few centimeters a second. How much further could it go, before the doorway hit a wall, stranding Durham completely?

Swearing, she stepped toward it, and reached through with one hand. The invisible boundary between the environments still let her pass. She crouched at the edge, and reached down to touch the floor; her palm made contact with the carpet as it slipped past.

Shaking with fear, she stood up and crossed the threshold. She stopped to look behind the doorway; the corridor came to a dead end, twelve or fifteen meters away in the direction the doorway was headed. She had four or five minutes, at most.

Durham was still in the garden, still trying to rouse the man. He looked up at her angrily. "What are you doing here?"

She caught her breath. "I missed the launch. And this whole thing"s... separating. Like the City. You have to get out."

Durham turned back to the stranger. "He looks like a rejuvenated Thomas Riemann, but he could be a descendant. One of hundreds. One of millions, for all we know."

"Millions, where? It looks like he"s alone here-and there"s no sign of other environments. You only discovered one communications port, didn"t you?"

"We don"t know what that means. The only way to be sure he"s alone is to wake him and ask him. And I can"t wake him."

"What if we just... carried him out of here? I know: there"s no reason why doing that should move his model to safer territory-but if our models have been affected by this place, forced to obey human physiology... then all the logic behind that has already been undermined."

"What if there are others? I can"t abandon them!"

"There"s no time! What can you do for them, trapped in here? If this world is destroyed, nothing. If it survives somehow... it will still survive without you."

Durham looked sickened, but he nodded reluctantly.

She said, "Get moving. You"re crippled-I"ll carry Sleeping Beauty."

She bent down and tried to lift Riemann-Thomas or otherwise-onto her shoulders. It looked easy when firefighters did it. Durham, who"d stopped to watch, came back and helped her. Once she was standing, walking wasn"t too hard. For the first few meters.

Durham hobbled alongside her. At first, she abused him, trying insincerely to persuade him to go ahead. Then she gave up and surrendered to the absurdity of their plight. Hushed and breathless, she said, "I never thought I"d witness... the disintegration of a universe... while carrying a naked merchant banker..." She hesitated. "Do you think if we close our eyes and say... we don"t believe in stairs, then maybe..."

She went up them almost crouching under the weight, desperate to put down her burden and rest for a while, certain that if she did they"d never make it.

When they reached the corridor, the doorway was still visible, still moving steadily away. Maria said, "Run ahead and... keep it open."

"How?"

"I don"t know. Go and stand in the middle..."

Durham looked dubious, but he limped forward and reached the doorway well ahead of her. He stepped right through, then turned and stood with one foot on either side, reaching out a hand to her, ready to drag her onto the departing train. She had a vision of him, bisected, one half flopping bloodily into each world.

She said, "I hope this... bastard was a great... philanthropist. He"d better... have been a fucking... saint."

She looked to the side of the doorway. The corridor"s dead end was only centimeters away. Durham must have read the expression on her face; he retreated into the control room. The doorway touched the wall, then vanished. Maria bellowed with frustration, and dropped Riemann onto the carpet.

She ran to the wall and pounded on it, then sank to her knees. She was going to die here, inside a stranger"s imploding fantasy. She pressed her face against the cool paintwork. There was another Maria, back in the old world-and whatever else happened, at least she"d saved Francesco. If this insane dream ended, it ended.

Someone put a hand on her shoulder. She twisted around in shock, pulling a muscle in her neck. It was Durham.

"This way. We have to go around. Hurry."

He picked up Riemann-he must have repaired his ankle in Elysium, and no doubt strengthened himself as well-and led Maria a short way back down the corridor, through a vast library, and into a storage room at the end. The doorway was there, a few meters from the far wall. Durham tried to walk through, holding Riemann head first.

Riemann"s head disappeared as it crossed the plane of the doorway. Durham cried out in shock and stepped back; the decapitation was reversed. Maria caught up with them as Durham turned around and tried backing through the doorway, dragging Riemann after him. Again, the portion of Riemann"s body which passed through seemed to vanish-and as his armpits, where Durham was supporting him, disappeared, the rest of him crashed to the floor. Maria ducked behind the doorway-and saw Riemann, whole, lying across the threshold.

They couldn"t save him. This world had let them come and go-on its own terms-but to Riemann himself, the exit they"d created was nothing, an empty frame of wood.

She went back and stepped over him, into Elysium. As the doorway retreated, Riemann"s shoulders came into view again. Durham, sobbing with frustration, reached through and dragged the sleeping man along for a meter-and then his invisible head must have struck the invisible wall, and he could be moved no further.

Durham withdrew into Elysium, just as the doorway became opaque. A second later, they saw the outside wall of the house. The implosion-or separation-accelerated as the doorway flew through the air above the grounds; and then the whole scene was encircled by darkness, like a model in a glass paperweight, floating off into deep space.

Maria watched the bubble of light recede, the shapes within melting and reforming into something new, too far away to decipher. Was Riemann dead, now? Or just beyond their reach?

She said, "I don"t understand-but whatever the Lambertians are doing to us, it"s not just random corruption... it"s not just destroying the TVC rules. That world was holding together. As if its own logic had taken precedence over Elysium"s. As if it no longer needed us."

Durham said flatly, "I don"t believe that." He crouched beside the doorway, weighed down by defeat.

Maria touched his shoulder. He shrugged free. He said, "You"d better hurry up and launch yourself. The other Elysians will have been removed from the seed, but everything else-all the infrastructure-should still be there. Use it."

"Alone?"

"Make children, if you want to. It"s easy; the utility programs are all in the central library."

"And-what? You"ll do the same?"

"No." He looked up at her and said grimly, "I"ve had enough. Twenty-five lives. I thought I"d finally discovered solid ground-but now it"s all crumbling into illusions and contradictions. I"ll kill myself before the whole thing falls apart: die on my own terms, leaving nothing to be explained in another permutation."

Maria didn"t know how to respond. She walked over to the interface window, to take stock of whatever was still functioning. After a while, she said, "The Autoverse spy software has stopped working-and the entire hub has gone dead-but there"s some last-minute summary data in the copy of the central library you made for the seed." She hunted through Repetto"s analysis and translation systems.

Durham came and stood beside her; he pointed out a highlighted icon, a stylized image of a swarm of Lambertians.

He said, "Activate that."

They read the analysis together. A team of Lambertians had found a set of field equations-nothing to do with the Autoverse cellular automaton-with thirty-two stable solutions. One for each of their atoms. And at high enough temperatures, the same equations predicted the spontaneous generation of matter-in exactly the right proportions to explain the primordial cloud.

The dance had been judged successful. The theory was gaining ground.

Maria was torn between resentment and pride. "Very clever-but how will they ever explain four humanoid robots abandoned in a meadow?"

Durham seemed bleakly amused. "They arrived in a spaceship, didn"t they? Aliens must have sent them, as emissaries. There must be other stars out there-concealed behind a suitable dust cloud."

"Why should aliens try to tell the Lambertians about the TVC cellular automaton?"

"Maybe they believed in it. Maybe they discovered the Autoverse rules... but since they still couldn"t explain the origin of the elements, they decided to embed the whole thing in a larger system-another cellular automaton-complete with immortal beings to create the Autoverse, primordial cloud and all. But the Lambertians will put them straight: there"s no need for such a convoluted hypothesis."

"And now the Autoverse is sloughing us off like dead skin." Maria gazed at the Lambertian field equations; they were far more complex than the Autoverse rules, but they had a strange elegance all their own. She could never have invented them herself; she was sure of that.

She said, "It"s not just a matter of the Lambertians out-explaining us. The whole idea of a creator tears itself apart. A universe with conscious beings either finds itself in the dust... or it doesn"t. It either makes sense of itself on its own terms, as a self-contained whole... or not at all. There never can, and never will be, Gods."

She displayed a map of Elysium. The dark stain marking processors which had ceased responding had spread out from the six public pyramids and swallowed most of the territories of Riemann, Callas, Shaw, Sanderson, Repetto and Tsukamoto. She zoomed in on the edge of the darkness; it was still growing.

She turned to Durham and pleaded, "Come with me!"

"No. What is there left for me to do? Descend into paranoia again? Wake up wondering if I"m really nothing but a discredited myth of Planet Lambert"s humanoid alien visitors?"

Maria said angrily, "You can keep me company. Keep me sane. After all you"ve done to me, you owe me that much."

Durham was unmoved. "You don"t need me for that. You"ll find better ways."

She turned back to the map, her mind going blank with panic for a moment-then she gestured at the growing void. "The TVC rules are dissolving, the Lambertians are destroying Elysium-but what"s controlling that process? There must be deeper rules, governing the clash of theories: deciding which explanations hold fast, and which dissolve. We can hunt for those rules. We can try to make sense of what went on here."

Durham said sardonically, "Onward and upward? In search of higher order?"

Maria was close to despair. He was her one link to the old world; without him, her memories would lose all meaning.

"Please! We can argue this out in the new Elysium. But there"s no time now."

He shook his head sadly. "Maria, I"m sorry-but I can"t follow you. I"m seven thousand years old. Everything I"ve struggled to build is in ruins. All my certainties have evaporated. Do you know how that feels?"

Maria met his eyes and tried to understand, tried to gauge the depth of his weariness. Could she have persisted for as long as he had? Maybe the time came, for everyone, when there was no way forward, no other choice but death. Maybe the Lambertians were right, maybe "infinity" was meaningless... and "immortality" was a mirage no human should aspire to.

No human-

Maria turned on him angrily. "Do I know how it feels? However you want it to feel. Isn"t that what you told me? You have the power to choose exactly who you are. The old human shackles are gone. If you don"t want the weight of your past to crush you... then don"t let it! If you really want to die, I can"t stop you-but don"t tell me that you have no choice."

For a moment Durham looked stricken, as if all she"d done was compound his despair, but then something in her tirade seemed to break through to him.

He said gently, "You really do need someone, don"t you, who knows the old world?"

"Yes." Maria blinked back tears.

Durham"s expression froze abruptly, as if he"d decoupled from his body. Had he left her? Maria almost pulled free of his grip-but then his waxwork face became animated again.

He said, "I"ll come with you."

"What-?"

He beamed at her, like an idiot, like a child. "I just made a few adjustments to my mental state. And I accept your invitation. Onward and upward."

Maria was speechless, giddy with relief. She put her arms around him; he returned the embrace. He"d done that, for her? Reshaped himself, rebuilt himself...

There was no time to waste. She moved toward the control panel and hurried to prepare the launch. Durham looked on, still smiling; he seemed as entranced by the flickering display as if he"d never set eyes on it before.

Maria stopped dead. If he"d rebuilt himself, reinvented himself... then how much of the man she"d known remained? Had he granted himself transhuman resilience, and healed himself of his terminal despair... or had he died in silence, beyond her sight, and given birth to a companion for her, a software child who"d merely inherited its father"s memories?

Where was the line? Between self-transformation so great as to turn a longing for death into childlike wonder... and death itself, and the handing on of the joys and burdens he could no longer shoulder to someone new?

She searched his face for an answer, but she couldn"t read him.

She said, "You must tell me what you did. I need to understand."

Durham promised her, "I will. In the next life."
<dd><br><dd>EPILOGUE <dd><br><dd>(Remit not paucity) <dd><br><dd>NOVEMBER 2052

Maria left three wreaths propped against the illusion mural at the end of the cul-de-sac. It was not the anniversary of any death, but she placed flowers there whenever the mood took her. She had no graves to decorate; both her parents had been cremated. Paul Durham, too.

She backed away from the wall slowly, and watched the crudely painted garden, with its Corinthian columns and its olive groves, almost come to life. As she reached the point where the perspective of the imaginary avenue merged with that of the road, someone called out, "Maria?"

She spun around. It was Stephen Chew, another member of the volunteer work team, with pneumatic jackhammer in tow on a small trolley. Maria greeted him, and picked up her shovel. The sewer main in Pyrmont Bridge Road had burst again.

Stephen admired the mural. "It"s beautiful, isn"t it? Don"t you wish you could step right through?"

Maria didn"t reply. They set off down the road together in silence. After a moment, her eyes began to water from the stench.
<dd><br><dd>ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Parts of this novel are adapted from a story called "Dust," which was first published in Isaac Asimov"s Science Fiction Magazine, July 1992.

Thanks to Deborah Beale, Charon Wood, Peter Robinson, David Pringle, Lee Montgomerie, Gardner Dozois and Sheila Williams.
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